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October 20, 2004


The main page on RealClearPolitics tonight shows a set of results for Ohio that has political junkies scratching their heads nationwide:

OH: ABC: Kerry +3, FOX: Bush +5, Rasmussen: TIE, Ohio Poll: Kerry +2, SurveyUSA: Kerry +2

Why do the polls seem to be showing such different results? The Ohio native and cynic in MysteryPollster is tempted to use this opportunity to unveil his First Rule of Poll Interpretation: Otherwise smart people tend to forget about sampling error as numbers approach fifty (or margins approach zero). But that would be a cop out. More important, it would be wrong, because despite all outward appearances, the Ohio numbers are actually amazingly consistent.

To understand how that could be, let us revisit the Incumbent Rule, the notion that the most important number in a race featuring an incumbent is that candidate's percentage of the vote. This rule itself is not an immutable law of physics, of course, but it relies on sound theories of psychological decision-making. Voters know incumbents better. Their attitudes toward sitting Presidents are especially well defined and firmly held, and the first stage of their decision is whether to support the incumbent. Regarding George W. Bush, at this stage in the campaign, the first part of the decision has largely been made.

By contrast, challengers are less well known and attitudes toward them tend to be more in flux, even at the end of the campaign. Vulnerable incumbents do their best to raise doubts about the challenger. Undecided voters are typically conflicted; unhappy with the incumbent's performance but also uncertain about the alternative. The challenger is typically perceived, almost by definition, as less qualified to be president, less experienced in the conduct of foreign affairs, harder to imagine as commander in chief. So some voters who are ready to "fire" the incumbent are hesitant to support the challenger, some may not feel truly comfortable with their decision until the moment they cast their ballot in the voting booth. More often than not, their first instinct is to tell pollsters they are undecided. As such, their attitudes are more susceptible to what pollsters call "measurement error" - how questions are phrased, whether the question offers a third candidate as a choice, how hard interviewers push for an answer, whether an interviewer or a recorded computer message asks the questions.

Now, let's look at the Ohio numbers and see how well these principles apply. The following table shows the presidential vote (with Nader included) on the four polls released today. George Bush's percentage is remarkably, almost impossibly consistent: 47%, 47%, 47, 47% and 46%. All of the variation is between the Kerry, Nader and undecided. That is the incumbent rule in action.

[Note: Although the issue remains in the courts, as of this writing, Ralph Nader has been ruled off the Ohio ballot. For Fox News, the results above are based on a their first question, a three-way choice including Nader. They followed with a two-way question that put Bush ahead 49%-44%. Neither ABC, the Ohio Poll nor Rasmussen asked a three-way question, although all three did accept responses for other candidates when volunteered. Even at 49%, the Fox number is still under 50% and still quite close to the other surveys. More on this later...]

Looking back at the national Fox polls over the course of the year and notice that their undecided percentage is always higher. This difference is almost certainly about the text and structure of the vote question (as well as how the pollsters train their interviewers to ask it). The ABC News Poll pushes the initially undecided to say, "which candidate are you leaning toward?" Fox/Opinion Dynamics and Ohio Poll questions do not. The Ohio Poll is the only one that does not offer Ralph Nader as a choice. The surveys conducted by SurveyUSA and Rasmussen used a recorded voice and automated computer response system rather than an interviewer in a way that arguably simulates the solitary decision making of the voting booth (Survey USA also uses a subtle push that involves pausing briefly before presenting the undecided option: "For Bush, press 1, for Kerry press 2, for Nader press 3....[ pause] if you are undecided press 4" [Correction: SurveyUSA does not probe for Nader in Ohio].

Does the same pattern hold at the national level? Not quite as consistent as Ohio, but close in the surveys released today. The table below shows the results of the six surveys that released results today. Bush's percentages nationally are only slightly more varied: 51%, 49, 48%, 48%, 48%, and 45%. ABC News is a little higher tonight, Zogby a littler lower. Once again, Fox News and Zogby have higher numbers for undecided, neither pushes them to say how they lean.

Incidentally, in Ohio, you can see a similar pattern in Ohio's U.S. Senate race. Four polls put George Voinvich's support within a range of four points: 62%, 60%, 58%, 58%. By contrast, Eric Fingerhut's support is significantly lower on the Fox/Opinion Dynamics survey (28%) than in the other three (34-35%), because the Fox undecided percentage is higher (14% vs. 4-7%).

There is a second possible explanation for the variation in Ohio. The Fox/Opinion Dynamics survey is the only one of the five that sets regional quotas in its sample to match past voting patterns. The other polls (Rasmussen being a possible exception) make sure their initial sample of adults matches the population regionally, but let their screens and models determine the regional distribution of likely voters. Ordinarily, I prefer the Fox/Opinion Dynamics approach, but the unprecedented efforts to register new voters in Ohio make me a bit uncomfortable relying on it blindly. If the Democrats have registered more new voters as the anecdotal evidence suggests, and those voters get through the likely voter models of the other polls, then the Fox/Opinion Dynamics may be sampling relatively fewer voters in Ohio's large urban counties. However - big hedge here - absent regional profiles of the various samples, we have no way of knowing for sure. Given the consistency of Bush's support in Ohio, I would guess that the regional differences are small.

Main point: you are watching the underlying principles of the Incumbent Rule in action. With Bush at roughly 47%, the race in Ohio is close. If the President's support remains at this level, he is likely headed for an Ohio defeat.

Related Entries - Incumbent Rule, Interpreting Polls, The 2004 Race

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on October 20, 2004 at 09:52 PM in Incumbent Rule, Interpreting Polls, The 2004 Race | Permalink


"you are watching the underlying principles of the Incumbent Rule in action"

I couldn't agree more. This election will give us quite a few data points to either confirm this rule on the Presidential level.

Or refute it.

Posted by: Gerry | Oct 20, 2004 7:14:31 AM

Also note that the Fox Poll was conducted over two days. After watching Zogby go from +4 Bush to even with one day dropping for the rolling 3-day AVG, I can see the lack of a third day being signicifcant. Also note that the Fox poll is the only one that does not include days prior to October 17.

Posted by: Eric | Oct 20, 2004 8:22:58 AM

The question is: what must an incumbent poll in order to win? 48, 49, 50, 51?

Posted by: John | Oct 20, 2004 10:24:08 AM

Since the FoxNews poll suggests some movement toward Bush (or at at least suggests that Bush's support isn't capped at 47%, since without Nader his support and his margin increase), and since the other polls all pre-date the FoxNews poll, wouldn't it be economical in interpreting these to think that the FoxNews poll is showing just what all the national polls are showing (that is, a move toward Bush)?

Posted by: Thomas | Oct 20, 2004 11:36:18 AM

This is a very dead-on accounting of Ohio.

Living in Northeast Ohio, what I've encountered is Bush's missing three-percent are among what I call the Hedges - people who don't want to make the decision but are feeling pressured to vote. It truly is a splinter from the Undecided, who have a desire to vote.

The Hedges, (white-collar young adults), are superficial on issues and actually feel more pressured when barraged with facts. If they've voted before, it's usually in step with their parents, (fathers predominantly), but now in a state of growing autonomy, they question that approach. All have a heavy disdain for activism, as it reminds them of college ignorance, which they are now beyond.

It's a tough middle ground; if your parents voted Republican, you show independence by giving Kerry a chance to make his case, but when you see the activists who back him, it evokes a sense of immaturity that you're past. In essence, it's an image problem for the Republican Party where only Governor Arnold has been able to cross-over.

The strangest thing I've encountered so far are the steady number of old-school Democrats,(non-union and non-steel industry), that are leaning Bush.

Posted by: Martin | Oct 20, 2004 11:38:54 AM

The "Incumbent Rule" fell apart in the 90's. In 1992 Bill Clinton received 43% of the vote. In 1996, he received 49%. I believe we're poised to see the same "rule" apply during this cycle.

Posted by: PunditGuy | Oct 20, 2004 1:16:32 PM

Pundit Guy,

You are aware that in 1992 and 1996, there was a third party candidate that sucked up 19% and 7-8% of the vote? Hard to apply the 50% incumbent rule in such a circumstance. The better bet would have been to alter the incumbent rule by the expected % received by the third party. I would use 50%-(3rd party %/2). Thus, if a 3rd party candidate was at 10%, your incumbent re-election percentage might be 45%. Using that formula, in 1992, that would have meant GW Bush would have need to be above 40.5% to win it (which would have been a pretty accurate).

Posted by: CW | Oct 20, 2004 1:34:27 PM

Another measure of Bush support (or lack thereof) is yard signs. My eight year old counts yard signs as I drive, just to amuse herself. We drove through Gates Mills (wealthy conservative area of eastern Cuyahoga County) into Chester Township, a wealthy exurb with mixed farmland and upscale developments. In this area, which is typically very strong GOP territory, Kerry signs outnumbered Bush signs 14-12. Also, in Cuyahoga County, a Dem. stronghold, there are now 1 million registered voters, with 160,000 new registrants. My read: in northeast Ohio, which has been hit hard by job losses, the GOP voters are just not as motivated as the Dems.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 20, 2004 1:37:18 PM


One thing to remember is that not every campaign thinks yard signs are important. My neighborhood is a moderately Republican one in a safe Bush state, and yet Kerry signs outnumber Bush signs by about 10 to 1. Remembering that those signs cost the campaign more than $1 apiece, I'm relieved that the Bush campaign hasn't focused on giving yard signs to its more than 50 million supporters.

Posted by: Thomas | Oct 20, 2004 2:17:26 PM

Bush yard signs are a really hot ticket in Columbus, you have to fight to get one for your front yard. My father certainly had to be that persistant. I wouldn't trust the yard sign poll this time, certainly in Ohio.

Posted by: MarkO | Oct 20, 2004 2:21:52 PM

This would also seem to fit the adage that the undecideds tend to break 2:1 to the challenger. If Bush is polling below 50% by a decent margin (say, 45-46%), he's in serious trouble, in Ohio and nationwide.

Posted by: Dadof2 | Oct 20, 2004 3:31:26 PM

Pundit Guy,

in 1992 Bill Clinton was not an incumbent. The rule obviously didn't apply to him then.

Posted by: SFNathan | Oct 20, 2004 3:48:07 PM


The other problem with counting yard signs is that there has been a rash of destruction of yard signs around the country, especially Bush signs in NE Ohio.

Posted by: timmy | Oct 20, 2004 4:51:02 PM

Some of the polling fluctuation may be due to the football season and the major league playoffs, which tend to take predominantly male and pro-Bush sports fans out of the sample pool. No matter how the sample is adjusted and massaged, support in the polls for Bush is artificially depressed when his supporters prefer to watch ball games instead of talking to a pollster. Or at least that is my impression based on comparing day by day polling results with game schedules.

Posted by: Ken | Oct 20, 2004 6:05:18 PM

Wouldn't that suggest that Kerry's numbers could be depressed by Boston Red Sox fans definitely not wanting to talk to pollsters during the (arguably) most important BoSox games in their lifetimes? Plus, this female is both a MASSIVE sports fan and a Kerry supporter... It's not like all sports fans are going to love Bush. Although I suppose I don't really count considering I'm among the 6% of the populace not taken into account by polls (that's right 6% of us) because our cell phones are our main phone lines...

Posted by: Elisabeth | Oct 20, 2004 6:56:03 PM

All national polls are most definitely not showing a move towards Bush. In Ohio, we have 3 polls showing Kerry up in the last few days, so the state can properly be redesignated as a slight advantage for Kerry.

Posted by: erg | Oct 20, 2004 7:05:55 PM

Thank you SO much for this incredible site.

I have read many post on other blogs saying that the belief that "undecideds break for the challenger" is an old canard. That undecideds, especially any voters still undecided in a polarized race such as this presidential one, usually are unable to resolve their conflict (wanting to fire the incumbent yet not confident in the challenger either ) and therefore usually stay home. Can anyone shed any light on this?

Posted by: tuesday | Oct 20, 2004 7:52:51 PM

erg, look another look at those polls. The FoxNews poll was the most recent as far as beginning date.

Posted by: Thomas | Oct 20, 2004 7:55:01 PM

A poster above asked what % an incumbent generally needs to win a state. I just did a quick Excel tabulation on the 2000 results. Perhaps not suprisingly, for every state Bush won in 2000 (save one), he had greater than 49% of the vote. (He won NH by a margin of ~ 48.5 to 47.5). For every state save NH in which he had less than 49%, he lost. If we assume (not unreasonably) that Nader drew more Dem votes in 2000 than he will now, Bush appears to be in serious trouble in, for instance, Ohio, where he's polling at 47% -- especially when those polls push undecideds into one camp, and especially if the rule holds that undecideds don't break for the incumbent.

Posted by: Josh Benson | Oct 20, 2004 8:32:07 PM

Democrats CAN win the House and Senate with NADER for A.G.
ALSO promising they will take J.E. Hoover's name off FBI Bldgs. -&-
wipe out the IRS tax code to a straight sales tax (no food or drugs)
Kerry: "If everybody who cares will go vote !"

PLAY THE JUSTICE CARD - poll on these ?

- Respectfully the only sane Exit Strategy ~ perhaps to be announced after the election.
- Respectfully thus to delimit our domestic discord, divisions and loss of precious lives.

1) Pull back all USA forces to ONLY secure their entire energy production, pipeline, delivery
facilities infrastructure and ports, thus to operate along with any allied forces pursuant to U.N.
and international cooperation to be had, albeit our troops under total USA and British control.

2) Use ONLY highly paid Bonus combat volunteer$ USA troops, volunteer allied troops and
private contract security forces, all operating under USA and British control in accord with U.N.
and international agreements, to wit:

3) Provide the net/net Iraqi oil revenues to the legal constitutional presiding Iraqi government
(whom, what and howsoever duly constituted and in futuro) pursuant to a long term, i.e., 50 to
to 99 year oil production, security, lease contract, e.g., Guantanamo Naval Base, with the
present Iraqi government; all in cooperation with the U.N. operating under USA and British

4) Thus to more nearly guarantee our allies with stable petroleum supplies had in verifiable
cooperation with the more stable Arab and Islamic governments hopefully to portend some
greater peace being achieved in that region of the world forever ~ amen !
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Domestic programs for youth unemployment, education and drug rehab. program. to follow
Note: ~ Without contending for the legalization of drug use ~

Semper Fi-

David Mitchell Basker, J.D.
Attorney at Law | Washington, D.C.
PO Box 357426 Gainesville, Fl 32635

Posted by: David Mitchell Basker | Oct 21, 2004 12:24:07 AM

DMB -- Nader for Attorney General? Are you nuts? A national sales tax? -- that's a Republican idea, regressive, hardest on the poor and working class -- not a winning idea for Democrats!

Posted by: B Traven | Oct 21, 2004 8:38:30 AM

But the FoxNews poll didn't run for 3 days. The point is that there is NO trend at the national level for Bush (with polls all over the map), and its the same for OH. OH at this point may be a true tossup (a new MD poll shows a 1 point difference).

Posted by: erg | Oct 21, 2004 11:17:14 AM

Your conclusions are well founded, but I feel the need to point out a bad fault in all the polls, especially when numbers are this close.

Nadar now has nearly no chance to be on the ballot in Ohio. Although identified as "non-partisan" on the ballot, both the Libertarian, Michael Badnarik and the Constitutional party's candidate will be on the ballot. [Nader is not even on as a registered Write In candidate, see http://serform.sos.state.oh.us/sos/news/guide/list/gen/Presidential.pdf for full candidate list].

As I am planning on voting for Badnarik, such polling is an issue to me, but here's why it should be an issue to everyone. My 90 year old aunt has already voted via absentee ballot. She's from a family that remained staunchly Republican even through the depression, and through fifty years of her eastern Ohio (W.Va. border) county being solidy Democrat until Reagan's first term. Except for me, the remainder of the family, dispersed throughout Ohio and nationally, have remained staunchy Republican. However, when it came down to it, and although she had never heard of the two other candidates, she voted randomly for one of them (I hope Badnarik), because she could not bring herself to vote for Bush, let alone Kerry.

This is anecdotal to be sure, except by my knowing it to be true. But my point is, in such a close race, how can any poll be accurate which does not proffer all the candidates the voter will be presented with on election day (let alone presenting the polled person with the Nadar choice, which will not be on the ballot)?

Posted by: OhioAtty | Oct 21, 2004 1:19:23 PM

Another thing that could be bad for the Bush administration is that, since WWII, administrations that INITIATE wars (rightly or wrongly) don't do well in subsequent elections. Truman, LBJ, Bush 1, all suffered at the polls in favor of a plausible alternative.

Posted by: JohnF | Oct 21, 2004 7:11:19 PM

You should thank Slate for the link to this site... that's how I got here, and am quite happy I did.

I'm a college student in rural Missouri, and my understanding is that the situation is somewhat similar in both states. Minor movement towards Kerry, with Bush polling relatively steady. I hate to say this, since I already revealed that I'm a college student, but I think something is being left out of polling considerations in both states: college students. I've been a Democrat campaign volunteer for years, and this is the first year I ACTUALLY BELIEVE the normally rediculous claim that students might swing the vote. In Missouri (and, I hear in Ohio) college students have registered in record numbers. Harvard just released a study making the oh-so-surprising claim that us younger folk support Kerry by a significant margin. Thing is, pollsters don't contact college students. We use cellphones and dorm phones that are unlisted. We have the spare time to get to polls, and many of us vote absentee... thus not registered in the regional polls at all.

I'll admit my doubts that college kids help carry Kerry. But with hundreds of thousands more college students than ever before getting involved in politics, states like Ohio and Missouri may be much closer than the polls say.

Posted by: TSUCorey | Oct 21, 2004 11:26:51 PM

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